On the night of June 6, under cover of darkness, members of the "Albany Key Society" put up fliers inviting prospective initiates to join their shadowy group. The handbills did not provide specific instructions on how to become a "Key Keeper," but rather vague clues about the odd induction process.
Calling the number on the flyer led one to 1330 Solano Ave., address for the shop Flowerland, where interested citizens received a package of materials necessary for the tests ahead. That in turn led to the torch monument at the intersection of Solano and Key Route Blvd., where a dial code from the Flowerland package enabled callers to hear an automated message from the society's "audio stratum," leading to yet another clue.
- The society recruited members via fliers such as this.
The bizarre ritual quickly caught the attention of Albany residents like Tamara Borgfeldt. "So my friends and I went cult hunting today," she posted on Facebook. "Turns out it was just a scavenger hunt. Or is it? This is some weird Gravity Falls/Riverdale kinda shit. Pls lemme know if you got any info, my dudes."
Albany resident Mary Johnson quickly emerged as a counterforce to the Key Keepers, which she conspiratorially described as a secret society that had infiltrated Albany's government. Almost rabid in her hatred, Johnson and a small band of followers took to defacing the Key Keepers' posters. Taking to Facebook to warn Albany about the society, she posted a video alleging to have first encountered it in the 1980s at the Hotsy Totsy, where a group of men wearing key pins were reviewing papers and acting suspiciously. Once she got closer, she said, one of the men spilled his drink on the papers so she couldn't see what they said. Johnson later attended a city council meeting at which she said all the council members wore identical key pins.
Johnson posted fliers of her own, which included her phone number, but she wouldn't talk to callers because she said the Key Keepers had compromised her line. Instead, she texted one caller a copy of a threatening letter she said she had received from the Key Keepers. "It seems you have been prying into matters that do not concern you as of late, but nothing goes on in this town without our knowledge of it," the letter said. "You were observed in the act of removing posters from Solano Avenue which were deployed by our organization. This reckless action has interfered with a critical operation of ours and you would be wise to cease this behavior and keep your knowledge of our existence to yourself. You have no idea of the scope of our influence or the kind of people you are dealing with. We run this town and should you take any further actions against us we will have no choice but to bring down severe repercussions upon you and anyone else you may be working with. This will be your final warning."
- Mary Johnson was threatened by the group..
But Johnson didn't give up, instead attempting to infiltrate the group's July 7 new-member induction. Almost exactly a month after the group's fliers first appeared, Johnson and her associates assembled at the parklet in front of the As You Wish frozen yogurt store, two blocks down from the Albany Twin theater, where city councilmember and former mayor Peter Maass led the Key Keepers' initiation ceremony. Johnson harassed both passers-by and theater employees, shouting obscenities, banging on the theater's doors, and appearing mentally ill. "My impression was ... 'This an Albanyite who has gotten disturbed and freaked out,'" said Albany resident Jennifer Sanchez, (full disclosure, the mother of this reporter).
Suddenly, amid Maass' speech to the initiates, the audio cut out. A voice took over the presentation and the screen changed. Out of nowhere, Johnson and accomplice Tod Abbott commandeered the meeting, only to steal Maass' briefcase and escape with it. Other members of Johnson's group accused the Key Keepers of being a corrupt organization planning to dominate Albany. An Albany police officer arrived and arrested Maass, who was accused of plotting to use city resources to overthrow and replace Berkeley mayor Jesse Arregiun.
As Johnson's group faced off with the other Key Keepers in the median of Key Route Blvd., they made peace under the direction of society leader Alastair Faramund. He described his group as a charitable organization comprised of super-intelligent alien beings like himself who came to earth to help the people of Albany. Amid the chaos of the 1906 earthquake, Faramund said, he was stranded on earth with no way to get home, so he dedicated himself to making Albany better and created the Key Keepers. Johnson's team then built a radio to help Faramund and the Key Keepers contact their home planet. When assembled, the radio playing the lilting tones of "I Love Albany CA," which inspired a dance party with the two groups — who finally parted as friends.
In reality, the police officer who arrested Maass was none other than Albany resident Joey Rees-Hill — in character as one of several actors in what he called the "Avenue Adventure." The whole thing was an alternative reality game planned by him and Sam DuBois, who graduated from Albany High School last year and now attends the California Institute of the Arts, where he majors in technical direction and experience design. DuBois and Rees-Hill and their former Albany High classmate Kai Gerard designed and planned the game over the course of several months, receiving funding from the Albany Chamber of Commerce and the Solano Avenue Association. DuBois is already a bit of a local legend as the host of the Albany Haunt. DuBois started the now-legendary haunted house when he was only 12, and ended it in 2017 when he graduated from Albany High.